A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Spillane & John D. MacDonald
You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.” – Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep
(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)
Fans of my writings here at Black Gate (both of you!) know that John D. MacDonald is my favorite author. And I think he’s one of the best in any genre. So today, I’m going to talk a bit about two times that Mickey Spillane, millions-selling author of Mike Hammer, entered into the JDM story.
Especially before the success of his Travis McGee series, MacDonald was “looked down at” during his time because his books were paperback originals. It was rare that he received reviews or high-profile comments. His work sold, but critics ignored it, or dismissed it with a sneer.
Many of his books were published by Fawcett, part of the (still-collectible) Gold Medal paperback line. His first novel, The Brass Cupcake (more on that below) came out in 1950. It was followed in 1951 by Murder for the Bride, Judge Me Not (Hammett-esque and one of my favorites), Weep For Me, and the science fiction novel, Wine of the Dreamers. Which leads us to 1952’s The Damned.
Ralph Daigh, editorial director at Fawcett, let Mickey Spillane read a set of galleys for The Damned. After I, The Jury, in 1947, every other crime writer out there wished he had Spillane’s sales. When the writer came back in to Daigh’s office and returned them, he said, “That’s a good book. I wish I had written it.”
Daigh was a good book man and he wrote it out on a piece of paper and asked Spillane to sign it, which the latter did. And that endorsement was prominently displayed on the cover of the book when it came out. Spillane’s agent, editor, lawyer (possibly even his pool guy) contacted Gold Medal and said that Spillane didn’t endorse books, and they had to take that quote off of the cover
Unintimidated, Daigh told them all that he had Spillane’s signature, dated, to back it up. They went away. MacDonald remained a fan of Spillane’s.
The book sold two million copies and MacDonald was continuing to hone his novel-writing ability and increasing his sales. The Damned is as packed full of tension (leading to an explosion) as any book I can remember reading.
MacDonald’s first novel, The Brass Cupcake, was a somewhat hardboiled tale. Along with Judge Me Not, I think it’s the most hardboiled book he produced.
He wrote it for the pulps but his agent, Joe Shaw (the legendary former Black Mask editor), saw an opportunity to make more money and submitted it to Fawcett as a Gold Medal Original. They took it and MacDonald would become the cornerstone of Gold Medal’s mystery/thriller line (just as Louis L’Amour was for their westerns).
MacDonald was appealing to the Mickey Spillane crowd with this book. As an acknowledgement to Spillane, he sent the following parody to Dick Carroll, his editor at Gold Medal:
It was one of those afternoons when the greasy sunshine flooded Third Avenue like a men’s room with a broken john. She came out of the alley lapping at her juicy red lips with her pointed spicy tongue.
I shouldered her out of the way and blew the smoke off of the end of the rod. He lay there in the alley and he was dead. I don’t know why I did it but I aimed at him and blew off the other half of his greasy skull. It was a dirty world full of dirty people and I was sick of it. I felt the crazy anger welling up in me. He lay there in the alley and he was dead. She rubbed her thorax against me. I blasted his teeth out through the back of his neck.
Pat shouldered her out of the way. He was picking his greasy teeth with a broken match. A smart cop, that Pat.
“I knew you was going to go kill crazy again, Mike. This has got to stop.”
I knew it couldn’t stop. Not while there were people left in the world. Dirty people in a dirty world. I had to kill all that I could. Even if they lifted my license. He lay there in the greasy alley in the greasy Third Avenue sunshine and he was dead and I was glad I’d shot his greasy skull apart.
“Mike, Mike,” she gasped, stabbing her tongue into my ear. It tickled.
I fingered her haunch, then shoved her away hard. She looked at me with those wide, spicy hot eyes.
“You haven’t fooled me a bit,” I rasped. Then I laughed. My laugh sounded like two Buicks rubbing together.
She knew what I meant. She said, “Look what I can give you, Mike.” She unlatched her Maidenform.
I looked at it. I felt the sadness, the regret. But the anger was there. Pat sucked on the greasy match. He turned his head. He was a good cop.
The first shot nailed her against the alley wall. While she was slipping, her eyes still pleading with me, I wrote my initials across her gut with hot lead. It was tricky shooting.
Pat sighed. He said, “Mike, the D.A.’ll have something to say about this.”
“Screw the D.A.,” I said. My voice sounded like a lead nickel in a stone jukebox.
We walked out of the alley, down through the soggy sunshine. Somehow, I felt very tired.
Other John D. MacDonald posts I’ve written:
John D. MacDonald – A Writer’s Writer
A Century of John D. MacDonald
Judge Me Not – The Selling of a Politician’s Self
Birthday Review – Ring Around the Redhead
Steve Scott on Park Falkner
Prior posts in A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2019 Series
Back Deck Pulp Returns
A (Black) Gat in the Hand Returns
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Will Murray on Doc Savage
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Hugh B. Cave’s Peter Kane
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Paul Bishop on Lance Spearman
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: A Man Called Spade
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Hard Boiled Holmes
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Duane Spurlock on T.T. Flynn
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Andrew Salmon on Montreal Noir
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Frank Schildiner on The Bad Guys of Pulp
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Steve Scott on John D. MacDonald’s ‘Park Falkner’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: William Patrick Murray on The Spider
A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2018 Series
With a (Black) Gat: George Harmon Coxe
With a (Black) Gat: Raoul Whitfield
With a (Black) Gat: Some Hard Boiled Anthologies
With a (Black) Gat: Frederick Nebel’s Donahue
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Thomas Walsh
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Black Mask – January, 1935
A (Black) Gat in the hand: Norbert Davis’ Ben Shaley
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: D.L. Champion’s Rex Sackler
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Dime Detective – August, 1939
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #1
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: W.T. Ballard’s Bill Lennox
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Day Keene
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Black Mask – October, 1933
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #2
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Black Mask – Spring, 2017
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Frank Schildiner’s ‘Max Allen Collins & The Hard Boiled Hero’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: William Campbell Gault
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: More Cool & Lam From Hard Case Crime
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: MORE Cool & Lam!!!!
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Thomas Parker’s ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Joe Bonadonna’s ‘Hardboiled Film Noir’ (Part One)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Joe Bonadonna’s ‘Hardboiled Film Noir’ (Part Two)
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: William Patrick Maynard’s ‘The Yellow Peril’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Andrew P Salmon’s ‘Frederick C. Davis’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Rory Gallagher’s ‘Continental Op’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #3
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #4
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Back Deck Pulp #5
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Joe ‘Cap’ Shaw on Writing
A (Black) Gat in Hand: Back Deck Pulp #6
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: The Black Mask Dinner
Bob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ was a regular Monday morning hardboiled pulp column from May through December, 2018 and was brought back in the summer of 2019.
His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017 (still making an occasional return appearance!).
He organized ‘Hither Came Conan,’ as well as Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series.
He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.
He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V and VI.
Did Mickey see the parody? (It’s spot on!) If so, how did he react?
Hi Mike – I don’t know if Spillane ever saw it. Or, if he did, commented on it. I think it’s amusing.
Some time, I’ll do a post on the Carroll John Daly/Spillane interaction.
Fritz Leiber did a short story Spillane parody, “The Night He Cried.” Heavy-handed (how could it not be, considering the target) but fun.
I read my first Spillane (I, the Jury) a few years ago. It’s likely to be my last…
Thomas – I’m not much of a Spillane fan. But I recently read some of the ones Max Allen Collins finished (including the short story collection) and I’m warming up a little bit. Not on board yet.
But Carroll John Daly and Raymond Chandler grew on me over the years. Spillane might.
I read the Spillane/Collins western, based on an unproduced screenplay Spillane wrote for John Wayne. I liked it (though one scene of violence was too much for me. That’s a problem I have with Spillane).
A favorite uncle of mine recommended the Travis McGee books when I paid him a visit in 1975. Up until then, I had seen MacDonald’s books on the newsstands and in bookstores, but had bought only “Wine of the Dreamers,” “Ballroom of the Skies,” and “The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything.” So I bought and read “The Deep Blue Good-by,” and proceeded to haunt those newsstands and purchased every MacDonald book I could find. I’ve read all the McGee novels, close to 20 other novels, and still have 20-30 somewhere in my basement waiting to be rediscovered. I don’t think I ever saw a Mickey Spillane book anywhere until sometime in the 1980s (?) when Signet republished some of the Mike Hammer books in a less lurid paperback version.I have a half dozen or so, but never read them — yet.
Smitty – I think I’ve read every MacDonald book, except the Judy Garland movie adaptation ‘thing’ he did. I can’t say I’ve loved every one of them, but I don’t recall disliking any of them.
He became my favorite author without any preconceived intentions. Only Robert E. Howard has approached him since, for me.
I haven’t re-read the McGee books (which I love) in at least 20 years (I’m 52).
But I still grab a stand-alone novel a time or two a year and tear through it. And I read a short story now and then.
I wouldn’t mind doing a MacDonald only column when I don’t have a job to work at. His stuff is that goood to me.
I HIGHLY recommend Steve Scott’s ‘Trap of Solid Gold’ blog. It is a FANTASTIC JDM resource, and Scott is the greatest living JDM authority, in my book.
I used two of his essays from the blog for the Park Falkner post a few weeks ago. It’s top quality stuff.
JDM really is at the tip top. I’m one of those heretics who prefer the earlier, non-series novels to the Travis McGee books, good as they are. If there’s a better thriller anywhere than A Bullet for Cinderella, I’d walk a hundred miles to read it.
Thomas – I too am a huge fan of the stand-alones. I’d put The Executioners up with Cinderella (which I quite like).
For some reason, ‘Murder in the Wind’ sticks with me as an almost-great novel, with a great setup. I can’t recall what put me off a bit.
Caper books, business-world settings, politics – there are so many good non-McGee novels.
I’ve said before I think he’s one of the great social commentators of his era.
And I think he’s flat-out, one of the best writers of the 20th century – in any genre.
You know what?
I’m already working on my next Conan series – one that I will actually write myself this time. I can’t leech off of more talented folks forever. John O’Neill might eventually catch on and give me the boot. Or increase the amount I have to pay to stay on the BG roster…
And I think, down the line, I’m going to round up another all star roster – this time, to tackle Solomon Kane.
But I think maybe, I could get a dozen or so JDM fans, and have them each write an essay on a favorite novel. I think that would be a pretty great series for Black Gate to add.
Bob, I just visited “The Trap of Solid Gold,” and had to drop a note and say “Thanks!” Wow — I wish I’d known about this ages ago! I plan to be a regular visitor — when I’m not here at Black Gate. By the way, the Spillane parody was priceless — and “The Brass Cupcake” is the only MacDonald book — so far — I’ve read twice. Sometime very soon I hope to start re-reading the Travis McGee series.
Some other Spillane parodies and pastiches, including citations by Bill Pronzini, Matthew Davis and George Kelley in the contents:
Or even the comments!